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FFA has had an influence on these lives

Future Farmers of America is a program that has churned out some lifelong advocates for the agricultural industry. National FFA Week is Feb. 22-29 and a group of past members as well as a current member spoke this week about how the organization – and the local program’s advisor – influenced the direction of their lives.

2011 Webster Area graduate Olivia Siglin is now a lawyer based in Brookings but said the leadership skills she learned through FFA helped point her in that direction.

Starting out in seventh grade, Siglin said she did dairy cow judging at that time and was part of a team that placed second at state competition. By her freshman year, she had begun taking part in range judging competitions and became one of the top students in her local chapter. She went on to receive an American FFA degree and served as a state officer. In 2011-12, she was the State Reporter, spending time traveling across the state and visiting various high schools to promote the organization.

“FFA is something that let me get leadership experience,” she said.

During her college involvement in the organization, she had the chance to go to China, an experience she described as, “an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Siglin credits her dad and uncle as well as long-time FFA advisor Fred Zenk for “pushing me” towards her achievements in the organization.

Advice Siglin said she’d pass on to those just starting out in the organization is, “You will get out of it what you put into it. You can get out of your comfort zone and put in the effort and it will pay off.”

Siglin said FFA is an organization open to everyone – whether an individual has an ag background or an urban one.

Even though she is not directly involved in agriculture now, Siglin says being involved in FFA helps her have a deeper understanding of the issues that impact the ag industry, of those issues that come across her desk now, everything from flood issues to wind towers.

“I am happy to be a Webster FFA alumni,” she said.

Chad Sjurson is a 2013 Webster Area graduate who now is an agronomist for Agtegra in Bristol. He started his involvement in FFA as a sophomore and went through graduation.

According to Sjurson, one of the biggest aspects of the program that had a long-term impact on his life was the Career Development Exercises (CDEs). He said it was a competition in which students learned to identify seeds at the state and local level.

“It laid the foundation of knowledge and helped spark that interest I have today,” Sjurson said. “It confirmed my interests.”

Sjurson said FFA is a club that gives students the chance to get a feel for various jobs in the agriculture industry – professions that go beyond farming. He said FFA helps students explore careers from food science to mechanics.

“It gives students a chance to get their feet wet. It helps you narrow it down,” he said. “For me, it was an all-around fun experience.”

If a student were on the fence about getting involved with FFA, Sjurson said he’d council them, “What are you out? What could it hurt? Go to a couple events and try it out. College is expensive, you only want to do it once. It probably has helped lay the foundation for me and my career. I learned quite a bit through FFA... And Mr. Zenk is a really good guy to work with – he’s an all-around good FFA advisor.”

Shala Larson says its because of her experience with FFA that she now works in education, helping advocate for the ag industry. A 2013 Webster Area graduate, Larson now teaches at the Institute of Applied Agriculture at the University of Maryland in College Park, MA. She said her career choice was heavily influenced because of FFA and especially because of Zenk’s leadership in that organization.

Starting in FFA when she was an eighth grader, Larson said she got involved in dairy judging because Zenk encouraged her to do it. Although she grew up in the city limits of Webster, her uncle Bernie Gaikowski raised dairy cattle.

After high school, Larson served as the FFA State Sentinel from 2013-14 and helped lead the state organization through that capacity. She attended an international leadership seminar in South Africa as well.

While Larson describes FFA as a program that revolves around ag education at it’s core, she said, “It’s so much more than that. There are so many career development programs. It helps students decide. It’s more than what it seems. It’s more than just kids in blue corduroy  jackets.”

Larson said the leadership piece, learning the actual agriculture, was an influential and substantial part to her growth as an individual but the FFA organization in general also affected her career outlook. In her professional capacity today, she teaches communication and public relations, Larson said the FFA program in Day County is reason for her being where she is now.

“Mr. Zenk had a huge impact on me and my career. He’s pretty much one of the best ag teachers in the state,” she remarked. “He has no idea how many people have blossomed under his leadership. I don’t think he realizes the impact he has had. The program Mr. Zenk hosts in general is incredible.”

Being on the East Coast now, Larson said it’s an interesting world in which to advocate for agriculture.

“Where we’re from, we’re pro-GMO and here they’re pro-organic – they have major promotion of plant-based meat,” she remarked. “It’s interesting to try to advocate for ag. I have to be unbiased as a teacher, but I have to teach also. It’s a really interesting time to find that balance, especially on the East Coast. I have some students with ag backgrounds but others who have never set foot on a farm.”

For Webster Area senior 17-year-old Mason Peckham, the Webster/Waubay FFA Chapter and Zenk’s influence has completely changed his mind about his future plans.

“FFA really opened my opportunities. Mr. Zenk has lead me to pursue a career in ag,” he said. “I will come back to farm on my family’s farm.”

His family owns a grain farm in the Bristol area and Peckham said he wants to first go to Mitchell Tech for a degree in ag business and then work on a different farm to gain different perspective before returning home.

Prior to joining FFA two years ago, Peckham said, “I had no real idea of what I wanted to do, but I had no interest in the farm!”

Last year, Peckham attended the National FFA Convention in Indiana where he was able to network with other ag-minded individuals. He described the experience as “pretty cool.”

Peckham said the level of involvement from all the people he’s met caused him to fall into the ag industry where he said he’s now stuck – in a good way.

“I love it now,” he said. His grandfather Darwin Peckham was involved in FFA and he said he likes the idea of following in his grandpa’s footsteps.

In his club, Peckham is serving as a student advisor, an officer position. His job is to have conversation with younger students about why FFA is a good organization to join. He said he keeps an eye out for the students who, like him prior to FFA, have no idea what they want to do with their lives.

“I tell them, ‘just give it a try – if you like it, well, I’m guaranteeing you will enjoy it,’” he said. “I joined and it opened my eyes. I explain to them it could open theirs too.”

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